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Watertown Daily Times
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Sunday, October 4, 2015
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Increased spending brings growth to regional state parks


State parks, bike trails and other outdoor recreation sites in the north country will receive millions in funding during the 2014-15 fiscal year, bringing improvements to the oldest and second-most visited state park system in the country and reinforcing the commitment to the parks on a state and federal level.

A substantial portion of this money—around $3 million—will come from the $90 million budgeted for state park repairs and improvements as part of the 2014-15 executive budget that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced in January.

The $90 million is only a step toward the $1 billion that Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a statewide advocacy group, said the parks, trails and historic sites need to complete backlogged projects. She said that with the state’s park system being the oldest in the country, there are many old buildings and facilities that need new roofs, sewage systems and other improvements.

“There’s not one park in the state that doesn’t need capital investment,” Ms. Dropkin said.

Locally, seven state parks will receive considerable awards, according to Parks & Trails. The awards vary from park to park and range from $400,000 to more than $1.3 million.

Grass Point State Park, Alexandria Bay, is scheduled to receive $735,000 to reconstruct a deteriorated bathhouse, something Kevin A. Kieff, director of the Thousand Islands Region of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said will be a “wonderful addition” to the park. Mr. Keiff said the project will be started this year and finished in time for the swimming season in 2015. Keewaydin State Park, located roughly six miles up Route 12 from Grass Point, is scheduled to receive the most money of any area park: $1.375 million to replace a toilet/shower facility, construct a three-story pavilion and make boat-access improvements at the marina.

For the state, that $90 million investment may turn out to be worth much more. According to Ms. Dropkin, for every dollar the state invests in the parks and trails system, it gets $5 back in economic growth. According to the state parks office, the parks generate $1.9 billion for the state’s economy.

She said tourism to the state parks is “huge” — around 25 percent of the state’s tourism comes from state parks. The Thousand Island Region, which runs from Jefferson and Lewis counties to Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain, is the largest camping region in the state, with 2,400 campsites between the region’s parks, or around 25 percent of all campsites in the state. State park camping sites were occupied for 583,016 nights in 2013, breaking the record of 578,482 nights set in 2012.

Mr. Keiff agreed with Ms. Dropkin’s $1-to-$5 claim, calling the money “incredibly beneficial to the local economy.” He said that the 2,400 campsites bring in an average of 8,000 to 10,000 people on a busy weekend.

Watertown residents will see some of this money at work in the expansion of the Black River Trail, which follows a 3.3 mile segment of the abandoned NY Central Railroad parallel with Route 3 between Watertown and the village of Black River. Calling the trail “popular beyond our wildest expectations,” Mr. Keiff said, the plan is to build a little bit more than a mile of additional trail in order to connect it with the rest of the city’s trail system.

Work for the new trail is set to kick off in spring 2015 and be completed that fall. Much of the funding for the project is coming through the federal transportation bill, said Frances Gotcsik, director of programs and policy for Parks & Trails New York.

The project received $640,000 from the Department of Transportation, a federal agency, in order to fund the project. Ms. Gotcsik said the grant is designed to cover 80 percent of the total cost of the project, while the local municipality is responsible for the remaining 20 percent, or $160,000.

“It’s a really nice bit of support,” Ms. Gotcsik said.

Ms. Dropkin said the $3 million investment in the north country’s state parks is “a great step in the right direction” and applauded the recent surge in funding as a part of Gov. Cuomo’s NY Works Agenda, an initiative to stimulate the state economy and job creation. Mr. Keiff said this most recent investment is “of historic proportions.”

Aside from last year, in which around $2 million was budgeted for parks, Mr. Keiff said, the Thousand Islands Region typically was budgeted around $700,000.

He said the Thousand Islands region, which consists of 30 state parks and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, had to prioritize what projects needed to be done the soonest, since funding had not allowed multiple major projects in the same year.

“Our goal was one building a year,” Mr. Keiff said. He added that if a pressing issue arose that demanded funding, the plan for the new building would often be pushed back.

“It’s critical that we have this funding,” Mr. Keiff said. “It addresses a lot of needs and, without it, we wouldn’t be able to put a dent in it.”

New shower and toilet facilities are scheduled to be built at several regional parks this year and next year, including Higley Flow, Grass Point and at two parks in the Plattsburgh/Lake Champlain area. With an average cost of around $350,000 for each building, around half of the old yearly budget, Mr. Keiff said, it was no surprise the renovations used to come at a much slower pace.

For Peter M. Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, the New York State affiliate of the National Wildlife Foundation, said the increase in funding for capital investments is helpful, but he did air a concern over the staff levels and day-to-day operations at the parks.

Ms. Dropkin said that since 2007, state parks across New York have lost around 23 percent of their staff. The Department of Environmental Conservation has experienced similar cuts, as more than 800 staff members have been cut since 2008, according to Mr. Iwanowicz’s group.

“We’re very concerned about staff cuts,” Mr. Iwanowicz said. “Especially in the north country.”

Currently the state parks employ about 20,000 people statewide, according to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Mr. Iwanowicz said while it is clear money is needed to fund staff for state parks and the DEC, he said it should not come from bond-based programs, such as NY Works, but from taxes and other revenue. He compared using bonds to pay for staff with using a credit card to pay for a day’s worth of groceries — and continuing to pay for the groceries well after they are gone.

Despite this hesitation, all agree that this funding is vital for the park system. Mr. Iwanowicz said that, considering some state parks faced closure over a $5 million shortfall in the state budget four years ago, he is “very satisfied” with the $90 million aid.

Overall, Mr. Keiff said, parks across the state and especially in the Thousand Islands Region are a “boost to the quality of life,” calling the resources offered at the parks “incredible.”

What’s on tap for next year? Mr. Keiff said along with the completed Black River Trail and bath houses at various parks, the region always is looking for ways to improve the parks — as long as the budget allows.

“I’m hopeful the budgets will continue to include the infusion of NY Works money,” he said. “It’s a wonderful infusion.”

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